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PARIS (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has angered fellow Socialists by suggesting an alliance with mainstream conservatives in a bid to prevent far-right leader Marine Le Pen from winning a regional election next month.
His proposal, leaked earlier this week and then publicly announced, is for a "fusion" of the two parties' lists if needed to block a victory for Le Pen's National Front wherever the far-right comes out on top in the first of the two-round polls.
"If we wanted to help the National Front win, I couldn't imagine a better way of going about it," Socialist Party grandee Martine Aubry complained on Friday. "We're in the middle of a campaign and everyone should just back off."
"I'm not in the habit of putting my boxer shorts on after my trousers," party chairman Jean-Christophe Cambadelis tweeted. "I urge all Socialists to concentrate on the first round."
Seeking to defuse tensions, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told journalists Valls was merely seeking to raise a matter that everyone needed to consider, not just the Socialists.
At issue is a battle for power in northern France, where many opinion polls show Marine Le Pen winning in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie in the regional voting on Nov. 30 and Dec. 13. That would be a major breakthrough for her anti-immigrant, anti-EU party as she gears up for the presidential election in 2017.
The Socialists, in power nationally since 2012, are facing potentially heavy losses in the regional polls while former president Nicolas Sarkozy's mainstream right-wing Republicans look set to increase their hold on power in the regions.
Several recent opinion polls have shown Le Pen comfortably ahead of her two main rivals in the north. Candidates for the National Front, which has never won in any of the 13 regions in metropolitan France, also running strongly in regions in the east and southeast.
Le Pen's Socialist rival in the north, Pierre de Saintignon, said after Valls's proposal: "The candidates, me in this case, should be left in peace to campaign."
The idea was also cold-shouldered by the Republicans, whose official electoral strategy is to tell conservatives they should vote neither for the National Front nor for the left if their own candidate stands little chance of winning.
The only welcome came from the National Front, which consistently states that voters are being duped by a political system where the mainstream left and right will do whatever it takes to cling to power.
"I'm delighted. At least things are clear now," Le Pen said of Valls left-right coalition proposal.
Earlier in his political career, Valls was spokesman to prime minister Lionel Jospin, who was eliminated in the first round of the 2002 presidential race by Marine Le Pen's father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac ended up winning the runoff with a landslide 82 percent majority thanks to support from left-wing voters who cast their ballots for him to prevent Le Pen winning the presidency.
Reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Tom Heneghan